Retro oil crisis brings up same worn out ideas

Editorial

Is the United States reliving the Nixon and Carter eras? Interest rates certainly are well below the 19 percent high they reached in the late 1970s, but the housing industry is slumping, gas prices are soaring, the current president is wildly unpopular, a war is raging, inflation is heating up, and economic malaise is setting in.

Even some quaint remnants from the ’70s are coming back, ranging from those colorful polyester fashions to — get this — calls to impose a nationwide 55 mph speed limit.

President Nixon signed the speed-limit cap in 1973 as part of a broader bill designed to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, but President Carter became a big advocate for the law.

Now, a prominent Republican, Sen. John Warner of Virginia, and a freshman Democrat, Rep. Jackie Speier of California, are proposing another national bill to cap speed limits at 55 in response to the latest oil crisis.

Here we go again.

“There is no reason to wait for OPEC or the oil companies to help us out,” Speier told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Every driver can effect change simply by easing up on their right foot.”

Sen. Warner said the 1970s-era speed limit saved 167,000 barrels of oil, and, given the higher number of vehicles on the road today, “one could assume that the amount of fuel that could be conserved is far greater.”

Here, again, we see how every “crisis” leads for calls for more government power and fewer individual freedoms, and such calls typically come in a bipartisan fashion.

There are many things wrong with this idea. States, not the feds, should determine their own speed limits. As the National Motorists Association points out, “(S)peed limits work if they reflect the speeds normal responsible people typically drive. … If most of the traffic on a given road travels between 50 and 55 mph, and the speed limit is set at 55 mph, almost all the traffic will be in compliance with the speed limit. If the speed limit is set at 45 mph, traffic speeds will remain at 50 mph to 55 mph.”

So, lowering the limit is unlikely to save much oil, as drivers will continue to drive at the natural limit.

More drivers will get tickets and have to pay fines to the state. Insurance rates will go up for many drivers. It will take people longer to get places, and costs will rise for trucking firms given that the time expense will undoubtedly exceed the meager fuel savings.

We’ve already seen from past studies that road safety will not improve. It could even get more dangerous out there, as speed differentials will increase between the slow drivers and the fast ones.

Plus, let’s face it, it’s miserable to drive a powerful car at 55 mph on a long trip.

Here we get back to the Carter era. Remember when the president told Americans to turn down the thermostat and wear a cardigan to save energy?

The country then, as now, needs to reduce energy regulation and increase oil production. Individuals are already practicing their own conservation — fewer driving vacations, more switches to fuel-efficient cars.

But to the energy Puritans, the goal is to make us miserable, as a punishment for our evil gas-oriented, consumer lifestyle. They want us to wear sweaters and drive econoboxes, slowly.

Individual Americans are stuck again with a retro-style oil “crisis,” but we need not embrace those timeworn attitudes.